By Michael Orbach
After years of lawsuits, emotional strain and financial hardship, things are finally going to change for parents of special-needs children in New York.
In June, Yachad/The National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NJCD) partnered with OU Advocacy-Teach NYS to launch the first-ever Jewish special-needs mission to New York’s capital. Yachad is the only Jewish organization promoting Inclusion for children and adults with disabilities in the broader Jewish community. The mission, part of a coordinated push between OU Advocacy-Teach NYS, Agudath Israel of America and the New York Catholic Conference, was an attempt to show legislators the plight of Jewish special-needs students in the New York area.
According to federal law, if parents of special-needs children believe that a child’s needs are not being met, they are entitled to enroll their children in a nonpublic school at the cost of the school district. However, according to activists, the Department of Education has fought the law tooth and nail.
“The New York City Department of Education has, in recent years, hired armies of attorneys in order to challenge every single Individualized Education Program that recommended placement in nonpublic schools,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, international director of Yachad/NJCD. “The city set its sights on our children’s placements and diagnoses simply because we, as parents, chose to educate our children in private schools.”
This changed in June thanks to OU Advocacy’s lobbying efforts with New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing changes to the current system.
“Every child in this city deserves a quality education,” Mayor de Blasio said during the press conference. “But for years, parents of children with special needs have had to wait for the city to settle legitimate claims for tuition reimbursement. Today, we are turning the page, making changes that will ease the burden on these parents.”
Key changes include expediting decisions about settling cases within fifteen days, making tuition payments to parents on a monthly basis, providing a payment schedule to parents, reducing paperwork by only requiring parents to submit full documentation every three years and refraining from relitigating settled or decided cases, unless there is a change in the student’s Individualized Education Program.
“We learn two lessons from this successful advocacy effort,” says Jeff Leb, New York State director of political affairs for OU Advocacy-Teach NYS. “The first is that change can happen, even if it takes longer than expected. The second is that change occurs when allies unite. The agreement is a lesson in cooperative government combined with passionate and unwavering advocacy. And the result is a win for the New York City special-needs community.”
Michael Orbach is a staff writer at the OU.